Why is Pablo Hernandez so important to Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa?
Leeds head to West Brom this Saturday, live on Sky Sports Football from 5.15pm
By Tom Mordey
Last Updated: 08/11/18 3:00pm
Marcelo Bielsa has put him alongside Alexis Sanchez, Dimitri Payet and Ariel Ortega - but why is Pablo Hernandez so important to Leeds? Tom Mordey takes a look...
There's an old cliche about fine wines and age. And at Leeds United this season, there's a Spanish vintage continuing to delight the people of West Yorkshire. Pablo Hernandez will turn 34 before the season is out but under one of the world's football's most demanding coaches, there's no suggestion that the legs have caught up with Hernandez just yet.
The playmaker is into his third season at Elland Road and it's no exaggeration to say he's one of the club's best signings since Premier League relegation in 2004. A former Spanish international, Hernandez's career was drifting into obscurity out in Qatar before his former Swansea team-mate Garry Monk brought him back to these shores as he aimed to add some sparkle into his new Leeds side.
The results have been remarkable.
While Chris Wood grabbed the headlines for his goals in Leeds' play-off charge in 2016/17, Hernandez conducted the orchestra behind him, providing six goals and eight assists from midfield. And if Hernandez proved his ability to deliver in a winning team, his follow-up season underlined his true quality.
Leeds' initial charge to the top of the Sky Bet Championship under Thomas Christiansen fell away, but worse was to follow under Christiansen's replacement - Paul Heckingbottom.
For Hernandez to produce seven goals and eight assists in a side that drifted out to 13th, and won just four games in all competitions after Boxing Day, is remarkable. The Spaniard walked the Player of the Season vote, able to hold his head high among a group of players that let theirs drop too easily during a difficult end to the campaign.
With Hernandez out of contract, paper talk of a reunion with Garry Monk at Birmingham soon surfaced, but Leeds got their key man tied to a new two-year deal as April came to a close. He spoke of a Premier League challenge in interviews after inking the contract and Hernandez might now be in a team capable of doing more than just challenge.
It wasn't easy initially to work out where Hernandez would play in one of Marcelo Bielsa's free-flowing, highly energetic formations. But he settled quickly out wide in a dazzling month of August, interchanging with Samuel Saiz when necessary. After the 3-0 demolition of Norwich at Carrow Road, Bielsa had high praise for his winger.
"He is one of the best players in his best position that I have worked with in my career."
Just pause to remember Bielsa has also coached playmakers such as Alexis Sanchez, Dimitri Payet and Ariel Ortega on his travels across world football. And Bielsa didn't stop there. He called Hernandez the complete player and when asked how he could improve him, replied: "I think he can make me a better head coach."
Bielsa talked about Hernandez's football intelligence and it's easy from this season's statistics to see how the winger makes Leeds tick. Hernandez has four goals and four assists from his eight starts and one substitute appearance and there's more to it than that:
For Leeds, he's provided the most assists per game, most chances created per game and played the most passes in the opposition half per game. Only Kemar Roofe has more goals per game. Hernandez also shapes up well in those areas compared to his fellow Sky Bet Championship midfielders - only Blackburn's Bradley Dack beats him in terms of goals and only Aston Villa's Conor Hourihane in terms of assists.
And when Hernandez scores, Leeds tend not to lose.
He's scored in 17 matches for the club and United have gone on to win 13 and draw four - a win rate of 76.5 per cent. That's the best ratio for any player featuring in the Championship since 2015/16.
The impact in terms of numbers when Hernandez plays is obvious. And the impact in terms of results is clear as well.
His untimely injury at the end of August blunted Leeds' sensational start. With Hernandez starting - Leeds have played eight, won six and drawn two, lost none. Without Hernandez, Leeds have played eight, won two, drawn four and lost two - although Hernandez did come on as second-half substitute in the defeat to Blackburn.
That's 2.5 points a game with him starting, which is halved to 1.25 points a game when he doesn't.
The question is whether Hernandez can stay fit. There's a common theme to his injuries. Hernandez missed 17 games in Swansea's 2013/14 season with hamstring trouble. The problem resurfaced on loan at Rayo Vallecano in 2015/16. He missed over a month of his first season at Leeds with the same injury and spent time out in December in the last campaign. And the hamstring issue reared its head again before the Middlesbrough game in August.
The Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday-Tuesday nature of the Sky Bet Championship puts plenty of strain on any professional footballer and Leeds need to protect such a star asset. The worry over any further absences for Hernandez is clear for all to see.
When he went down wincing in the second half against Wigan, the whole away end winced with him, holding their breath.
Clearly, Hernandez is crucial to any chance Leeds have of promotion this season.
He is the brains of the operation, the one capable of producing the surgical incisions Bielsa requires from the mountains of possession Leeds enjoy each game. Hernandez was the only player over 30 in United's squad against Wigan and his experience is vital in helping out a relatively young squad.
So the Spanish vintage at Elland Road continues to prosper, but will it be champagne corks Hernandez and his team-mates are popping come the end of the season?
Watch West Brom v Leeds on Saturday from 5.15pm on Sky Sports Football.